From Here To Banality

Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss explore the increasingly exotic margins of normalcy.

           The assignment from our high school social studies teacher, Mr. Reese, was something involving a slide show. After procrastinating till the last possible day, my partner, John, and I suddenly decided that our project would capture the Life of the City. We went on a mad scramble around Denver, taking pictures of people getting off the bus, a smashed bottle of Polo cologne outside a department store, the glorious sunset backdrop on the grimy Colfax Avenue strip. We snapped panhandlers, secretaries, cops. Everything became thrillingly significant; we got hooked on trying to record it all. We also, for some reason, got a really bad grade from Mr. Reese.

           The Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss did a much better job portraying the life of Zurich. For an installation piece that's part of their retrospective at Walker Art Center, they videotaped dump trucks, discoteques, snowy nighttime drives, soldiers, restaurants, squirrels, bicycle racers, and on and on and on--some 96 hours' worth of this stuff, fed through 10 monitors. Whereas John's and my slide show was a hastily assembled blip of banality, Fischli and Weiss's untitled project, originally created for the prestigious Venice Biennale last year, is monumentally, hypnotizingly Banal.

           Most of us counteract the untold hours of passive ordinariness in our lives by seeking out the subversive, the outstanding, the provocative, the unique, the sublime--isn't that, ideally, what art's about? Fischli and Weiss may be on the same mission, but they take a rather curious path to get there. Check out the dimestore psychedelia of "Le rayon vert (The Green Light)," created with a tipped-over plastic cup, a small turntable, and a pocket flashlight; or "Kanalvideo," a journey through Zurich's sewer tunnels that's edited into an entrancing loop of ever-expanding circles. A 1981 project, Suddenly This Overview, was fuelled by the same low-key but ambitious energies that would eventually create the Biennale videos. It's comprised of some 250 small, unfired clay sculptures whose goal seems to be depicting everything one could think of in a given moment: "Bread," "Indigenous Forest Floor," "Modern Development," "Street Musician," "Semi-Automatic Machine Gun," "Strangers in the Night, Exchanging Glances." These crude, often quite funny pieces were originally shown all together--thus, Suddenly This Overview--but unfortunately, their delicacy prevents them from extensive travel, and only nine are on view at the Walker.

           Fischli and Weiss are bent on, to borrow a British-ism, taking the piss out of Art (and their concession to fine art dictates intended to preserve their work is just one of the paradoxes they invoke). They've been working together since 1979, a nearly unique art partnership that puts a damper on grandiosity or solipsism: These two are wary of art that conveys big messages, which, as Walker curator Liz Armstrong points out, they refer to as "Bedeutungskitsch--the kitsch of heavy meaning." Which is to say that their retrospective, Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In A Restless World is about something really novel: fun. Not a wacky, smirky, loaded-with-entendres-and-innuendoes kind of fun, but an honest-to-goodness playfulness. Even though irony abounds in this work, I can't remember when I last saw art that produces such unselfconscious smiles.

           Beauty is not a goal of Fischli and Weiss; if it's there, as in "Kanalvideo," it's a happy accident. Nor are they really espousing some hip anti-aesthetic--a mellower version of blood-guts-sex-and-trash art. This duo aims to disarm with simple charms: Everyone, big and small, peers over the edge of the folksy, four-foot-tall "Fragentopf (Question Pot)" in the same way, looking down at a swirl of questions both big (Am I Connected Up With Everything?) and small (Should I Go to the Zoo?). With an aesthetic defined by cheap, malleable, and utilitarian materials such as polyurethane, rubber, modelling clay, and video tape, the artists create a humble, rather homely context that elevates the commonplace, and knocks everything else down a few notches. In Suddenly This Overview, for instance, a dish of peanuts is no more or less important than the moment described by a sculpture of "Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied after Composing 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction'."

           They also toy with the conventions that monumentalize art, placing objects under ultra-dramatic spotlights, making things impossibly long (the Biennale videos) or numerous (Suddenly This Overview). Then there's the Airports series of photographs, about which there is absolutely nothing special. These shots of planes sitting on tarmacs are as boring, unremarkable, and anonymous as possible--any of these airports could be anywhere in the world--and at the same time, they're blown up into gorgeous Cibachrome prints on a scale commensurate with Old Master history paintings. As well they should be: For these individual images, along with still more deliberate banality in the Suburbs and Images, Views photo series, don't represent themselves so much as the sum total of the non-artistic images, real and contrived, that demand our attention continuously. Fischli and Weiss are depicting the act of seeing pure and simple, all pretense to art eradicated--except, of course, for the fact that it's art.

           The so-called progress of art has always been about overthrowing the status quo, usually by looking to subcultures for the marginal and ignored. Yet in the wake of the mainstreaming of "alternative," and with the "cutting edge" cutting a ever-widening swath through the culture, it's the utterly normal that's become overlooked. As Boris Groys wrote in the exhibition catalog for In A Restless World, "banality is becoming mysterious at a time when mystery has faded to banality." Fischli and Weiss aren't the only artists to sense this; making the familiar strange is a tried and true postmodern concept. But this pair is not so much expanding the boundaries of what art can "get away" with, in the manner of brilliant cons like Jeff Koons or Mark Kostabi; rather, they seem to simply take delight in what they do, and they want to share that delight.

           Fischli and Weiss are also heirs to a long tradition of making everday objects into art. But if Duchamp pioneered appropriation as a key art form, waving his artist's wand to make a shovel into a Readymade, then Fischli and Weiss took the next step, creating hand-crafted likenesses of appropriated goods, either casting them in rubber (a dog bowl, or a record that really plays), or making them from carved and painted polyurethane. In the latter category is a notorious piece in the Walker's Gallery 6, a room littered with polyurethane imposter-objects--a drill, 2-by-4s, buckets, cigarette butts, light bulb boxes--as if it's being prepared for an installation. At New York's Sonnabend Gallery, where the installation was first unveiled, many visitors assumed the show wasn't up yet and left; like all trompe l'oeil art, this joke is best played on the unsuspecting (a difficult thing to do in a museum context). But take another look at those cigarette butts. Not all of the objects are painstaking reproductions, as filmmaker cum art critic John Waters, a fan of Fischli and Weiss, observed: "You had been fooled by the exquisite bait left behind by these great impostors, but not by their craft, only by their effortless understatement."

           Indeed, seeing as how these artists are so adept at overwhelming understatement, In A Restless World appropriately and casually pervades the entire museum: from the Airports photos in the Gallery 8 restaurant, to the installation in Gallery 6, to the selection of photos from the Stiller Nachmittag (A Quiet Afternoon) series in the museum lobby. The bulk of the show, however, is in the lower galleries: While those original hipsters, the Beats, will soon be paid tribute in the Walker's most prominent galleries, Fischli and Weiss are the mischievous, somewhat dorky teenagers goofing off in the dimly lit basement. Looking at their photos in the lobby, you might even hear, floating up the stairs, strains of the cheesy soul song playing endlessly on that rubber-cast record. Like a suburban rec room--or as Peter Fischli noted, a chill-out room for peaking and freaking rave kids--In A Restless World offers the aura of both safety and escape (to say it's a "meditative" space, however, would be succumbing to bedeutungskitsch).

           The art here is not all simple innocence and child-like wonder, however. If Fischli and Weiss are making art "easy" in the tradition of their Fluxus forebears, they're also employing sly and understated means to get at a dis-ease that earnest, self-important bedeutungskitsch can't. In the beloved film The Way Things Go, for instance, a slew of studio objects are set up like a falling wall of dominos, jiggling, rolling, sliding, and soaring into each other in a slapstick chain reaction that threatens to become chaos. One of the artists' most intriguing pieces is not on view, but is pictured in the catalog on page 20. It's an ugly cloth doll sewn from dirty rags and stuffed with coins, making it a rather unwieldly playmate. Plopped fatly on a table with more coins strewn across its lap, it's part of an installation commissioned by the Zurich stock exchange; this particular piece, however, is "installed" somewhere in the basement where no one really sees it. Sitting all alone, it acts as a kind of a voodoo doll, sanctioned (and probably handsomely paid for) by the very institution it curses.

           And what about those endless videos of lumberjacks, animal clinics, cheesemaking, and dentists? After 96 hours, a bemused smile would freeze into a psychotic grin. This, finally, is the great thing about Fischli and Weiss: It's hard to see their art as anything more than studiously bland, amusingly quaint, or simply delightful. But look again, and you'll see these pranksters aren't so harmelss after all. In the restless world of Fischli and Weiss, fun and games are in the eye of the beholder. CP

           Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In A Restless World is on view at Walker Art Center through August 11.

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